March 26, 2010
Not Dead Yet? The Fate of Regional Newspapers
On March 25, 2010, I delivered what I thought was a reasonably sensitive presentation on the current state and possible future of the regional newspaper, and the current utility of newspaper advertising, to the New York Capital Region Chapter of the American Marketing Association (NYCRAMA). The audience – which I found upon my arrival included 20 or so employees of the Albany Times Union, a Hearst product and our region’s regional newspaper – did not entirely enjoy my brusque prognosis, delivered (at least to their ears) with all the charm of Dr. House.
Many challenged my assumptions and my data. Several approached me afterward to suggest I didn’t know what was going on, or of all the efforts underway within the paper – blogging, youth outreach, new community focus, alternate revenue ideas (like charging for the weekly TV listing), online advertising efforts, etc. – that were working to slow the revenue slide and allow the “paper” to transition to a new era.
It is certainly a too easy thing to say that the regional newspaper is dead. In fact, I’ve heard that the Times Union has the most highly trafficked website in the region (though I wonder how it compares to Google). I also know that community newspapers have in some cases bottomed out, and a few are even experiencing subscription growth.
How right or wrong was I to say the regional newspaper is on life support and will not survive? Or will not survive in anything close to the form we know it?
Whether or not you were at my presentation, I’d love to know your opinion and ideas. Will there be physical newspapers 10 years from now? Will regional newspaper brands be able to maintain their authority as they move more and more online? Will the iPad save them all?
For the record, I’m a friendly. Like many who came to consciousness in a pre-Internet world, I am unsettled by the trends. I hang on to my newspaper subscriptions (yes, I have two!), and defend the form as a unique way to consume information. I enjoy the act of spreading the news before me. Moving my coffee and buttered bagel off the page to turn it. And taking the news with me wherever I, uh, go.
But I am in a fast-dwindling minority.
An admittedly non-scientific survey of 50 of my fellow employees highlights the terrible trend. Only 37% still subscribe to a physical regional paper. And as low as that number is, there is an even starker stat buried in the data: while fully 72% of my coworkers 40 and older take a paper, only 18% of those younger than 40 do. And only 9%, or one out of 11, of those under 30 do.
And when you ask the under-40s if they are likely to subscribe in the future, they either laugh or just look at you quizzically.
How do subscription numbers break down regionally? By income? Education? Propensity to purchase the goods advertised? I don’t know. But even accounting for a monstrous margin of error, the numbers do not suggest a healthy future.
If you were George Randolph Hearst III, Vice President, Associate Publisher and General Manager of the Times Union, what would you do?
Now, be nice.